Mr. Exposition

Today was a surprisingly difficult writing day, probably one of the most frustrating in many ways for a while, but I managed to get past what I consider the hardest part of a novel. Scrivener records that I wrote almost eight thousand words today, but I actually made five thousand words of progress, so still about the average I've been maintaining every day – so I am satisfied enough. (I'm running about fifteen hundred words ahead of schedule for the moment.)

Psychologically, starting and finishing are the hardest part. That blank page when you start a new book can be extremely daunting; I know I usually manage a few false starts, even when I have a pretty word-on-word idea of what I'm about to write. The ending – again, by the time I'm there at the very least, I know what the beats are, I know the characters, so it should be easy, but given that this is the culmination of a lot of work, its hard to actually finish. In practical terms, however, the hardest part is about Chapters 3 through 8 – say five thousand to twenty thousand words into the book.

Avoiding a formula, the best way to open a book is with a puzzle, with a problem, or with action – something to immediately engage the reader, because of the one-one-one rule. A good first line takes the reader to a good first page which takes the reader to a good first chapter, and by that point there's a good chance that they will finish the book. A strong first couple of chapters is a must, but it should also be fairly straightforward. The plot is at the start, the characters are being introduced, and if the two of them are interesting enough to support a book, they will certainly be interesting when the reader first meets them.

Then comes the hardest part. The set up. For a few chapters, the critical thing is to introduce the plot. If the core problem is introduced in the first chapter, then the next few have to set up the threads and nuances of that plot, as well as the characters – the important characters need to be established to the point that the reader becomes familiar with them, enough to carry them through the remainder of the book. The catch is, of course, that this cannot become exposition, it cannot simply be characters talking. Things need to happen. That can be action, it can be argument, it can be debate, it can be anything, but something needs to happen to keep the reader engaged.

In my opinion, this is the hard part. Getting everything that is needed to support a reader's understanding of the remainder of the book, in a reasonably short space of time, in a clear enough way that the reader gets all the information you want them to have, without making them conscious that they are reading it. Not an easy thing to do. (To be fair, you can probably get away with a little exposition if needed. Sometimes it is just easier for all concerned to just say, “This is planet Omicron Persei VIII, with three moons. The primary settlement is on the second moon, and that is where we are going.”) A few paragraphs here and there is fine, IMO – especially if it obvious that it is making everyone's life easier. The reader doesn't want to have to interpret stuff he actually needs to know to make things work. (It also helps if this ends up deep in the book; there are a couple of pages along these lines in chapter 17 of 'Admiralty', but that's three-fifths of the way into the book, so I really hope that it won't prevent anyone from finishing it at that point!)

In good news – I think I have one more chapter to go before I've finished this point. About another three thousand words to go before I get to Uranus...

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